Python sebae

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Python sebae
Albertus Seba Python sebae.jpg
An 18th-century illustration
Scientific classification
Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Subphylum: Vertebrata
Class: Reptilia
Order: Squamata
Suborder: Serpentes
Family: Pythonidae
Genus: Python
Species: P. sebae
Binomial name
Python sebae
(Gmelin, 1788)
  • P. s. natalensis Smith, 1833
  • P. s. sebae (Gmelin, 1788)
Natural Range of Python sebae.svg
  Range of Python sebae sebae
  Range of Python sebae natalensis
  Range of hybrids

Python sebae, commonly known as the African rock python, is a large, nonvenomous snake of Sub-Saharan Africa. The African rock python is one of seven species in the genus Python. It has two subspecies: one found in Central and Western Africa, the other in Southern Africa.

Africa's largest snake and one of the five largest snake species in the world (along with the green anaconda, reticulated python, Burmese python and amethystine python), specimens may approach or exceed 6 m (20 ft). The southern subspecies is generally smaller than its northern relative. The snake is found in a variety of habitats, from forests to near deserts, although usually near sources of water. The African rock python kills its prey by constriction and often eats animals up to the size of antelope, occasionally even crocodiles. The snake reproduces by egg-laying. Unlike most snakes, the female will protect her nest and sometimes even her hatchlings.

The snake is widely feared even though it very rarely kills humans. Although the snake is not endangered, it does face threats from habitat reduction and hunting.

Taxonomy and etymology[edit]

The African rock python (Python sebae) is one of seven species in the genus Python, a genus of large constricting snakes found in the moist tropics of Asia and Africa. The African rock python is divided into two subspecies, Python sebae sebae (also often called the African rock python) and Python sebae natalensis (the Southern African rock python).[3] Some consider the more southerly population of this snake to be a separate species, Python natalensis,[4][5] while others consider this form to be a subspecies.[6][7]

Python sebae was first described by Johann Friedrich Gmelin, a German naturalist, in 1788. Therefore he is also the author of the nominate subspecies P. s. sebae. The southern subspecies was first identified by Sir Andrew Smith, the father of South African zoology, in 1833.[3][8]

Python is a Greek word referring to the enormous serpent at Delphi slain by Apollo in Greek Mythology. Sebae is a Latinization of Dutch zoologist, Albertus Seba.[8] Natalensis refers to the Natal region of South Africa. Common name usage varies with both the species and northern subspecies referred to as African rock python or simply rock python. The Southern African rock python is sometimes referred to as the Natal rock python[8] or the African python.[9]

Common name Scientific Name Classified by Year
African rock python Python sebae sebae Gmelin 1788
Southern African rock python Python sebae natalensis Smith 1833


Africa’s largest snake species[4][10] and one of the world's largest,[8] the typical African rock python adult measures 4.8 m (16 ft). Rumors of specimens over 6 m (20 ft) are considered reliable, although larger specimens have never been confirmed.[11] Weights are reportedly in the range of 44 to 55 kg (97 to 121 lb), with a few weighing 91 kg (201 lb) or more.[12][13] One specimen, reportedly 7 m (23 ft) in length, was killed by K. H. Kroft in 1958 and was claimed to have had a 1.5 m (4 ft 11 in) juvenile Nile crocodile in its stomach.[14]

drawing of snake
1840 drawing of southern subspecies by Sir Andrew Smith

The snake varies considerably in body size between different areas. In general, it is smaller in highly populated regions, such as in southern Nigeria, only reaching its maximum length in areas such as Sierra Leone, where the human population density is lower. Males are typically smaller than females.[15]

The African rock python's body is thick and covered with colored blotches, often joining up in a broad, irregular stripe. Body markings vary between brown, olive, chestnut, and yellow, but fade to white on the underside.[6][10] The head is triangular and is marked on top with a dark brown “spear-head” outlined in buffy yellow. Teeth are many, sharp, and backwardly curved.[5][10] Under the eye, there is a distinctive triangular marking, the subocular mark.[6] Like all pythons, the scales of the African rock python are small and smooth.[10][16] Those around the lips possess heat-sensitive pits, which are used to detect warm-blooded prey, even in the dark.[5][16][17] Pythons also possess two functioning lungs, unlike more advanced snakes which have only one, and also have small, visible pelvic spurs, believed to be the vestiges of hind limbs.[16][17]

The southern subspecies is distinguished by its smaller size (adults averaging about 2.4 to 4.4 meters in length), smaller scales on top of the head and a smaller or absent subocular mark.[4][6]

very fat big snake
Adult female, northern subspecies. Note the thick body. 
snake in trees
Juvenile, southern subspecies. Note the small shields on the top of the head and the comparatively reduced markings on the side of the head. 
head of snake
Head of northern subspecies. Note the big shields on the top of the head. 


mosaic coiled snake in yellowish coloring
A Roman mosaic shows an African rock python from the southern Nile.

The African rock python is found throughout almost the whole of sub-Saharan Africa,[18] from Senegal east to Ethiopia and Somalia and south to Namibia and South Africa.[7][10] Python sebae sebae ranges across central and western Africa, while Python sebae natalensis has a more eastern and southerly range, from southern Kenya to South Africa.[4]

In 2009, an African rock python was found in the Florida Everglades.[19] It is feared to be establishing itself as an invasive species alongside the already-established Burmese python. Feral rock pythons were also noted in the 1990s in the Everglades.[11]


The African rock python inhabits a wide range of habitats, including forest, savanna, grassland, semi-desert, and rocky areas. It is particularly associated with areas of permanent water[6][20] and is found on the edges of swamps, lakes and rivers.[4][10] The snake also readily adapts to disturbed habitats and so is often found around human habitation,[18] especially cane fields.[8]

Rock python habitats
snake in grass
Northern subspecies, Senegal National Park 
snake in weeds near water
Southern subspecies, edge of the Cuando River, Botswana 
snake on rocks
Southern subspecies in the wild 


Like all pythons, the African rock python is non-venomous and kills its prey by constriction.[5][17] After gripping the prey, the snake coils around it, tightening its coils every time the victim breathes out. Death is thought to be caused by cardiac arrest rather than by asphyxiation or crushing.[5] The African rock python feeds on a variety of large rodents, monkeys, warthog, antelopes, fruit bats, monitor lizards and even crocodiles in forest areas,[10] and on rats, poultry, dogs and goats in suburban areas. Other Predators such as the Big Cats (Leopard, Lion, Cheetah) may fall to snake prey. However, the encounter in this circumstance are very rare and there will always target their cubs since a group of them can drive the snake off.[21]

Rock python feeding behavior
Constricting a pregnant goat 
Stretching to consume an antelope 


Reproduction occurs in the spring.[8] African rock pythons are oviparious, laying between 20 and 100 hard-shelled, elongated eggs in an old animal burrow, termite mound or cave.[4][10] The female shows a surprising level of maternal care, coiling around the eggs, protecting them from predators and possibly helping to incubate them, until they hatch around 90 days later.[4][5][10] It was recently discovered in a manner unusual for snakes in general and pythons in particular that the female guards the hatchlings for up to two weeks after they hatch from their eggs in order to protect them from predators.[22]

Hatchlings are between 45–60 cm (18–24 inches) in length and appear virtually identical to adults, except with more contrasting colors.[8] Individuals may live for over 12 years in captivity.[23]

Rock python egg development
snake around eggs
Brooding eggs
snake emerging from egg
little snake next to egg, slime on it

Human interaction[edit]


black and white photo, showing 3 African men dressed in loincloths holding an outstretched snake
Early 1900s, German East Africa

Documented attacks on humans are exceptionally rare, despite the species being common in many regions of Africa, and living in diverse habitats including those with agricultural activity.[18] There have been few well-substantiated deaths, and no well-substantiated reports of a human being consumed.[18] Scientists are confident that large specimens more common in Western Africa, (7.3 m (24 ft) or longer, "would have no difficulty in eating adult humans."[18]

Well-substantiated attacks[edit]

  • In 1979 in Waterberg District, Limpopo Province (then Northern Transvaal), South Africa, a 4.5 m (14.8 ft) African rock python killed a 13-year-old boy.[18] The victim died due to suffocation and internal injuries, and his body was released after fighting with an adult man some 20 minutes after the attack began.[18] The victim's head was covered in saliva, and scientists thought "it could have easily succeeded in swallowing" the 1.3 m (4 ft 3 in), 45 kg (99 lb) boy if not interrupted.[18]
  • In 1999 in Centralia, Illinois, USA, a 3-year-old boy was suffocated during the night by an escaped 2.3 m (7.5 ft) pet African rock python.[24][25] Bite marks around the boy's neck and ears may have resulted from an attempt to swallow him.[24]
  • In 2013 in Campbellton, New Brunswick, Canada, four- and six-year-old brothers were reportedly killed by an approximately 4.3–4.9 m (14–16 ft), 45 kg (100 lb) pet African python.[26][27] The snake appeared to have escaped from its enclosure, and a preliminary autopsy found the boys died of asphyxiation.[26] However, the RCMP's investigation is ongoing, and circumstances of the incident prompted skepticism from experts not involved in the case.[27] (See main article).

Other reported attacks[edit]

  • In 2002 near Durban, South Africa, a ten-year-old boy was reportedly swallowed by an African rock python over a three-hour period, as seven other children stayed hidden in a mango tree.[28][29] The animal was not captured and the story could not be verified, but detailed descriptions of markings and technique were credible to a local expert.[28]
  • In 2009 in Sabaki Village, Malindi District, Kenya, a male farm manager was attacked after stepping on an unspecified 4.0 m (13 ft) python. After an hour struggle, he was dragged up a tree, but was rescued by police and villagers after he was able to call for help on his mobile phone.[30][31] The snake was captured by police, but had disappeared by the next day.[30]


People are often fearful of large pythons and may kill them on sight.[4][18] The African rock python may also be threatened by hunting for food and leather in some areas.[32] It is also collected for the pet trade, although it is not generally recommended as a pet due to its large size and unpredictable temperament.[23] Little information is available on levels of international trade in this species.

Some of the African rock python’s habitats are also known to be under threat. For example, mangrove and rainforest habitats and their snake communities are under serious threat in south-eastern Nigeria from habitat destruction and exploration for the oil industry.[32][33]

Python natalensis, Makuleke/Pafuri, Kruger National Park, South Africa

The African rock python is still relatively common in many regions across Africa and may adapt to disturbed habitats,[18] provided that abundant food is available. It is not currently considered at risk of extinction, but is listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), meaning international trade in African rock pythons should be carefully monitored and controlled,[7] giving wild populations some protection from over-collection for pets and skins. The species is also likely to occur in a number of protected areas, such as the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania, a World Heritage Site.[34]

In the Florida Everglades, where the African rock python is an invasive species and posing a threat to indigenous wildlife, it has no protected status and is one of the species listed on a hunting program recently authorized by state officials to eradicate non-native reptiles, the others being the Burmese python, reticulated python, green anaconda, and Nile monitor.

See also[edit]


This article incorporates text from the ARKive fact-file "Python sebae" under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License and the GFDL.

  1. ^ "ITIS Standard Report Page: Python sebae". Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Retrieved 23 December 2013. 
  2. ^ McDiarmid RW, Campbell JA, Touré T. 1999. Snake Species of the World: A Taxonomic and Geographic Reference, vol. 1. Herpetologists' League. ISBN 1-893777-00-6 (series). ISBN 1-893777-01-4 (volume).
  3. ^ a b "Python sebae". Integrated Taxonomic Information System. Retrieved 12 September 2007. 
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  5. ^ a b c d e f Schmidt, W. (2006). Reptiles and Amphibians of Southern Africa. Cape Town, South Africa: Struik. ISBN 1-77007-342-6. 
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  7. ^ a b c "CITES". CITES. 
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  9. ^ Ditmars RL. 1933. Reptiles of the World. Revised Edition. The MacMillan Company.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i Alden, P.C., Estes, R.D., Schlitter, D. and McBridge, B (1996). Collins Guide to African Wildlife. London: HarperCollins Publishers. ISBN 000220066X. 
  11. ^ a b Murphy JC, Henderson RW. 1997. Tales of Giant Snakes: A Historical Natural History of Anacondas and Pythons.Krieger Pub. Co. ISBN 0-89464-995-7.
  12. ^ Spawls, S., K. Howell, R. Drewes, J. Ashe, 2002. A Field Guide to Reptiles of East Africa. San Diego, California: Academic Press.
  13. ^ Spawls, S., B. Branch, 1995. The Dangerous Snakes of Africa. South Africa: Southern Book Publishers, Ltd
  14. ^ Wood, Gerald (1983). The Guinness Book of Animal Facts and Feats. ISBN 978-0-85112-235-9. 
  15. ^ Starin, E. D.; Burghardt, G. M. (1992). "African rock pythons (Python sebae) in the Gambia: observations on natural history and interactions with humans". The Snake 24: 50–62. 
  16. ^ a b c Branch, B. and Branch, W.R. (1998). Field Guide to Snakes and Other Reptiles of Southern Africa. Cape Town, South Africa: Struik. ISBN 1868720403. 
  17. ^ a b c Halliday, T. and Adler, K. (2002). The New Encyclopedia of Reptiles and Amphibians. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-852507-9. 
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  19. ^ "Largest African Rock Python caught in Everglades". WBBH (NBC-2 News). Retrieved 5 April 2012. 
  20. ^ Luiselli, L., Akani, G.C., Eniang, E.A. and Politano, E. (2007) Comparative ecology and ecological modeling of sympatric pythons, Python regius and Python sebae. In: Henderson, R.W. and Powell, R. (Eds) Biology of the Boas and Pythons. EMP Press, Eagle Mountain, Utah ISBN 0972015434.
  21. ^ Luiselli, L., Angelici, F.M. and Akani, G.C. (2001). "Food habits of Python sebae in suburban and natural habitats". African Journal of Ecology 39: 116–118. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2028.2001.00269.x. 
  22. ^ Alexander, Graham; Johan Marais (2008). A Guide to the Reptiles of Southern Africa. Struik Publishers. ISBN 978-1-77007-386-9. 
  23. ^ a b Bartlett, P.P., Griswold, B. and Bartlett, R.D. (2001). Reptiles, Amphibians, and Invertebrates: An Identification and Care Guide. New York: Barron’s Educational Series. ISBN 0-7641-1650-9. 
  24. ^ a b "Centralia family's python suffocates 3-year-old boy"". Chicago Tribune. 30 August 1999. 
  25. ^ "AGN: Couple acquitted in child's death by python". Amarillo Globe-News. 25 March 2000. 
  26. ^ a b "Reports into boys' python deaths still under wraps". CBC News (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation). 12 September 2013. 
  27. ^ a b Boesveld, Sarah (6 August 2013). "‘Very, very strange’: Snake handlers, experts baffled by New Brunswick python attack". National Post (Postmedia Network Inc.). 
  28. ^ a b Flanagan, Jane (24 November 2002). "Hunt for giant snake that ate 10-year-old Durban boy whole". The Telegraph (Johannesburg: Telegraph Media Group Limited). 
  29. ^ Ayoob, Zoobair (23 November 2002). "Boy quiet as snake swallows him". News24 ( 
  30. ^ a b Nyassy, Daniel (14 April 2009). "Man bites snake in hour-long battle to survive". Daily Nation (Nation Media Group). 
  31. ^ Man bites snake in epic struggle. BBC 15 April 2009. Accessed 15 April 2009.
  32. ^ a b Luiselli, L. and Akani, G.C. (2002). "An investigation into the composition, complexity and functioning of snake communities in the mangroves of south-eastern Nigeria". African Journal of Ecology 40 (3): 220–227. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2028.2002.00358.x. 
  33. ^ Akani, G.C., Barieenee, I.F., Capizzi, D. and Luiselli, L. (1999). "Snake communities of moist rainforest and derived savanna sites of Nigeria: biodiversity patterns and conservation priorities". Biodiversity and Conservation 8 (5): 629–642. doi:10.1023/A:1008849702810. 
  34. ^ "Serengeti National Park, Tanzania". UNEP-WCMC. 

External links[edit]